Atnaterra boasted a buffet of regions—pockets of geography that varied with such unabashed and explosive eccentricity that they were nearly worth categorizing as realms of their own. But it wasn’t conversationally convenient to have to say, “The human world, the spirit world, and that weird little patch over there with the inside-out trees and the geysers of slime,” so no one bothered, and if anyone ventured to bother, then everyone else bothered them until they unbothered. It’s natural to want to assign some stamp of extra-importance to whatever acres one calls their own, but that doesn’t mean anyone else wants to hear about it.
Many of these regions came about from the inhabitance of spirits, and not the piddly little sort that squawk in the trees or complain that their feet hurt. Greater spirits, elder spirits, and in a few cases, ancestor spirits—those upper echelons of the spirit hierarchy were the sort that defined the swaths of the worlds. (Mostly that’s world, singular—that world being Atnaterra, of course—but more than a few powerful spirits took up semi-permanent residence in Setoterra. Humans were generally less accommodating of these sorts of neighbors and tended to send the beefiest among their ranks on a “quest” to “slay” the “monster.” This also tended to take several dozen runs through the selection process, because for some reason, on this matter alone humans haven’t yet discovered the value of strength in numbers. But that’s just fine—humans are often slow to discover things, such as washing their hands or splum.)
For instance, one such region was Festering Tyln in the Atnaterran south. The elder spirit Qoler the Famished had dwelt in the region for millennia, making the landscape barren with every footfall as the odor of his toes turned the soil from among the most arable in all the worlds to sludge arunable to grow even the hardiest dandelion.
Then there was Junnovor in the left-east-southleft-east, known for seasons that spanned all of thirty seconds (give or take) thanks to one particular (and enormous) sleeping inhabitant with breath that sucked all heat from the land on the intake and scorched on the exhale. The other inhabitants learned to deal, though they spent a disproportionate amount of time putting on and taking off their coats.
An example more immediately relevant was the woods where Root, Azriah, Vit, and Beel currently found themselves. It had no special name; to those unfamiliar, it was simply “the woods,” and to those familiar it was the same but with a more frightened inflection. It was set apart more by happenings than geography (which may sound difficult to define in borders, but in practice it never required much questioning), and by the faint and frequent tinkling of something glittery and, more often than not, unfortunate happening to something. It was also spreading, as mentioned, and not particularly slowly by a cosmic timeline, but almost no one had bothered to notice.
But even within the woods there were regions, though these had less to do with the bathing or breathing habits of spirits and more to do with what the woods permitted or willed, and what it needed in order to carry on doing what it did. Consider the woods an organism of sorts, with different sub-regions doing different duties. Then compare it to something a little more fathomable.
The Venus flytrap lures insects with a sweet scent and bright color; the alligator snapping turtle lies in the mud and wriggles its tongue, which bears resemblance to a worm; the anglerfish lurks in the deep recesses of the seas and dangles a lamp just in front of its ugly maw; the woods crafted itself a region.
The four of them cut east through the woods beyond the bridge. It took less than an hour before the landscape started to change.
The first oddity they came across was a wounded tree. It looked like the doing of a lightning strike or a very large bear in heat. Sap oozed from the trunk in thick rivulets that dribbled into the dust at its roots. The group took note, but hardly gave it a second glance as they started to pass it by.
And then they smelled it.
Vit paused first. They sniffed the air with a sour look on their face; it didn’t take long for the others to get caught up, nor to pinpoint the tree as the source.
“What is that?” asked Root.
“I thought it was sap,” said Azriah, “but on a second look—or smell…”
It didn’t smell bad, per se, but strong? Most assuredly. More than anything, it had caught them by surprise.
Vit stuck a finger in the ooze and sniffed it. They stuck it in their mouth.
“On the tree?” asked Azriah.
“In the tree. It’s coming out.”
Azriah scratched his head. “You know, I’m not actually sure where molasses comes from. Maple syrup comes from trees, right? Does molasses…?”
“No. And definitely not like this.”
There were some things one simply couldn’t address in any meaningful way, and a tree bleeding molasses was one of them. There was a round of shrugs and then they continued on.
Not long after, as they continued along the directions given to them by Rette, Vit happened to give a fist-sized rock a strong kick. It bounded across the ground before striking a tree, where it split open.
“Uh, hey you guys?” said Beel as they walked. Usually they ignored these sorts of sentences due to the frequency with which they were followed by a request to carry him or hold aside some prickles or swat down a spiderweb (always Vit’s least favorite). It only gave them slight pause when the next sentence was, “You should see this rock.”
The rock Vit had kicked lay mostly in two halves. Inside, sparkling in the silver light, was a jagged inner crust of blue and pink crystals.
Root picked up one half. “I’ve never seen a geode like this.”
Vit picked up the other half. They stuck their tongue into the crevice. “It’th candy.”
Root gave her own piece a tentative lick. The crystals tasted like pure sugar.
The list of things one couldn’t properly address included rock candy geodes. They kept going, this time with a snack.
Soon they crossed a path. Root looked down. This path was most assuredly different than the ones she had walked on previously.
“Are these peppermints?” asked Azriah, tracing the red and white spiral pattern on one round paver with the toe of his boot.
“You don’t need to lick this one, Vit,” said Root. “I think it’s pretty obvious.”
Vit stood back up.
“I’m going to get all sticky,” said Beel.
“Just walk along the side.”
In one direction, the path was more evenly paved; in the other, the stones became more widely spaced as the path turned to familiar and more weather-resistant dirt. They picked the mintier direction and followed it. It took only a few minutes before it led them to a fork in the path. Azriah referred to the directions.
“I like that direction,” said Vit, pointing right. The ground sloped down towards a tall cave opening where glowing spines of rock candy clustered in glittering formations.
“Something smells good down there,” agreed Root. “Like pastries.”
“I like it too,” said Azriah. “But it’s marked on Rette’s map. And right here it says ‘DO NOOOOT GO TO THE CAVE!!!!’ in really big letters.”
“Isn’t that how she wrote all of it?”
“Yes. But this line is especially large and has even more exclamation marks.”
“Bummer,” said Vit.
Curiosity fell victim to the desire not to waste more time than they needed to on their roundabout string of errands, so they took the left path. A few minutes later it dumped them into a clearing, at the center of which stood a solitary building.
The most obvious feature should not have come so naturally to mind, but the tree and geode and peppermint path had put them all in a state of certain expectations, and so it was utterly unsurprising to look at the uniform brown walls and roof and door and conclude that the structure in its entirety was built from gingerbread. Pristine white mortar filled the cracks and glued adornments to the roof and siding—a line of gumdrops along the ridge of the roof and licorice garland along the eaves, except for the far corner on the left, which was missing and marred by imprints with a suspiciously toothy shape; dollops of chocolate rimmed the foundation; twin gummy bears, one red and one white, flanked the door like bouncers. Lollipops as tall as Root, faintly glowing, lined the path up to the front door. Light came through the sugar glass windows; smoke rose from the chimney.
“I take it this is Grelga’s house?” said Vit.
“Should be. I can’t imagine Rette would send us anywhere else for frosting,” said Azriah.
As they approached the house, the door swung open and a face poked out.
“Ah! I thought I heard someone out here.”
She was a short little spirit by human standards, with a mostly human look about her. Spirits didn’t age the same way as humans, and all of them from Beel to the Hashell family’s (late) spirit worms to Halwlau the Gorger were all just the same age as each other and all the rest of their kind (or so the stories said). Really, trying to plan their birthday party must’ve been one hell of a headache, and all but impossible to coordinate so many schedules. But Grelga looked like she hadn’t gotten the memo and went about aging anyway, and had been doing so since the day all spirits were born. She wore an apron and a hat like Pag’s, both of which rivaled her in age.
“Hello!” said Vit. “Are you Grelga?”
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Vit; this is Azriah, and Beel, and Root, and Orne Tyn. Rette sent us on an errand for frosting, if you have some.” They looked up at the facade of the home. “Some more, that is.”
“Oh, Rette! Of course—come in, sweeties, come in. Can I get you anything? Any refreshmints?” They filed inside.
The house was warm, which seemed more of a hazard than anything. An enormous oven spanned the length of the far wall in the kitchen, a fiery glow pouring from the small window in the door. Did gingerbread melt? Burn? Or, at least, did it burn in the sense that a house burns—as opposed to burning like baked goods shriveling to a crisp away from the forgetful eye. Root regarded the oven warily.
Vit sniffed the air, then gestured to Grelga’s apron and the oven. “Baking something? An extra bedroom?”
Grelga shuffled some things out of sight on the counter. “Oh, just supper.” She hobbled back over to the four of them with a tray of cookies, a candy cane leading her way. Vit and Azriah each took one; Root and Beel passed.
“We don’t mean to intrude or interrupt your cooking—” started Azriah.
“Oh, not interrupting. It has to cook for a while yet.” A gleeful look crossed her gaze. “But never mind that.”
“As Vit here said, Rette sent us. She needs more frosting for… for her shop.”
“Yes, I’m sure she does, that Rette.”
Grelga, now sitting, watched Vit and Azriah chew with a wide smile. She gestured again to Root and then to the tray of cookies in unspoken question.
“I’m all set,” said Root, watching the oven again. Grelga followed her eyes.
“Well, ah, so, frosting,” said Grelga.
“Yes,” said Root. “You have some, right?”
Grelga chuckled. “Well of course. Don’t get far without it around here.”
There was a pause.
“So, can we have some?”
Azriah chewed faster, one hand up to hold his spot in the conversation. Apparently he didn’t approve of Root’s blunt negotiation style. But any haggling seemed a bit too on the nose, given the company.
“Well, I suppose. But I… what’s in it for me?”
Azriah swallowed quickly. “We have some money. Here, let me grab it. How much do you want for the frosting?”
“Well, now that I mention it, I… no, that’s quite all right.” She waved at the coin pouch Azriah held out to her. “You all look young and strong. I could use a hand. I need someone to fix my roof.”
“Money is really no issue—”
“No, no, that’s what I would like. You fix my roof, and you’ll have yourselves a deal. It’s really too much for me these days.”
Azriah held out the money for a second longer, then, slowly, as if still hoping she’d change her mind, he stowed it back in his bag. “Okay. Sure. Do you have some extra gingerbread around somewhere?”
“What are we supposed to use, then?” asked Root. “And I hope the answer is ‘lumber.’ Really might be a better idea if the opportunity is in front is us.”
“No, only the best materials will do, sweetie. You’ll use vanilla wafer cookies.”
“Sure,” said Vit. “You have some, I assume? Or do they grow on a tree outside or something?”
“Pardon?” said Beel.
“He’ll have some. He lives just down the lane, a five-minute walk at a spry pace like yours. Go fetch the cookies from him and then hurry back.”
“But—listen,” said Azriah.
Azriah paused with his mouth open. Then he sighed. “You’re sure that Gropply has the cookies?”
“Oh, certainly. He always has some on hand.”
“And it’s just five minutes away?”
“Even less for a big boy like you.”
Azriah’s face contorted for a millisecond in a psychological wince. “We will be right back then.” He said it like someone trying their damnedest to speak something into being.
The four of them filed back out the door, which was dusted with the faintest layer of flour on the back and ever so slightly sticky. Grelga pointed them in the right direction, and then they started walking.
A lumbering spirit lumbered through the woods, as lumbering spirits tended to do. Bigger than a bear, yellower than a lemon sour, rougher than fresh chopped lumber, it stalked between trunks, sniffing the air. Something smelled sweet; something smelled like dinner.
A path came beneath its feet, but it was not the sort of thing that took notice of paths, rather it was the sort of thing that made them. So it most assuredly didn’t trifle with the fact that the path was paved with peppermints, and it paid no mint to the fact that the moss was trifle. Sure, these things smelled tasty in their own right, but something smelled even better.
Up ahead loomed a cave. The spirit lumbered forward.
It entered the hollow, bathed in the faint myriadic glow of Enyn’s light reflected off the assorted crystals. They smelled good too, but there was something else—something that smelled delectable. It smelled ambrosial. The spirit delved deeper until it was shrouded in total darkness.
Something happened then, out of sight and knowledge to all but a few—the spirit included, for he never knew what hit him, so to speak, or what dissolved the essence of his body and belched out his will to send it sailing back to Yg Balta, so to speak more literally. The cave walls vibrated. Somewhere to the east, entangled in the roots of a stump older and more alive than most unhewn trees, a great mass beat like a sinuous heart, shuddered, stretched.
The woods spread.